Ten years of Welcoming Australia

In April, 2011, Adelaide pastor Brad Chilcott and his friends created Welcoming Australia, a grassroots movement aimed at promoting and fostering positive relationships across social and cultural barriers. Celebrating the ten year anniversary this month of Welcoming Australia, Chilcott told Eternity about its birth, what it has achieved and whether Australia is a different place in 2021. 

Welcoming Australia started after the Inverbrackie Detention Centre opened outside of Adelaide [near Woodside, in the Adelaide Hills]. Some friends of mine and I saw in the media an image of a young, white Aussie kid holding up a sign that said ‘Sink the Boats’ at a protest against the detention centre opening. Obviously that was not a protest about incarcerating innocent men, women and children, but protests about these ‘horrible’ people moving into the neighbourhood and house prices going down, crime going up.

That image made me think something has gone desperately wrong in our society when a parent can send their child out in public with that sign, basically hoping that people will die at sea as they flee war and terror.

While we didn’t agree with government policies about locking people up who are seeking asylum indefinitely, the deeper question for us was why were people voting for these policies? Why were Australians susceptible to a message of fear and division, and how could we change the culture so such messages would fall on deaf ears rather than being motivation to vote for a certain party?

I had made friends with some refugee families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were in Adelaide, so I was already broadly across the issues of how hard it is for people to settle into a new country … I have always been involved in a range of issues of justice and inclusion, and making a better society for everyone so, when I saw that image, it was a call to action.

I could never have imagined at that point that we would end up with a national organisation with staff across the country and projects, and everything it became. I just knew we had to do something.

Initially, what we did was to invite Australians to hold ‘Welcome Parties’ in their homes, schools, places of worship, offices – and we did it with a positive rather than an angry message. We invited people to think about how they could reflect in their own lives the Australia that we hopefully could be.

Within three months, we held 100 ‘Welcome Parties’ across the country. We thought we were on to something.

There have been lots of different people involved since the beginning. We started out of Activate Church in Adelaide, where I was the pastor. Pretty simply, if we loved other people and that meant more than a nice statement – if we took that idea seriously – it meant creating a better world for everyone. It meant striving to create an equal playing field so other people could have the same opportunities, hopes and dreams that I take for granted.

Part of our goal was to [cultivate] real personal and practical opportunities to offer welcome, but also to simply create relationships between people of different cultures which wouldn’t usually interact and hear each other’s stories.

If I say that I love people, the outward action of that is to create an Australia where everyone can thrive like I can.

Various members of our church are key components of the early stages, but heaps of volunteers wanted to be part of Welcoming Australia all over the country. The diversity of people we got on board was huge.

We used social media – Facebook, Twitter – to reach people and then we started to get celebrity ambassadors to join the cause. We had no money or resources but we had positive stories starting to be told in the media. We had AFL footballers join in – and The Wiggles – and other musicians and politicians from all sides. We might not have agreed with them on every point of policy but they were willing to say we need a more welcoming Australia. That we need to be known for our generosity, not our cruelty.

We made a video around March 2012 – as we were launching Welcoming Australia as an organisation, rather than just a nice idea – that had Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Garrett, other celebrities, and the captains of the Adelaide Crows and Port Power AFL clubs. It was ‘traditional rivals’ next to each other.

We played it as a TV ad asking people to consider how they could say ‘Welcome’ in their communities and lives.

As we got the support of high-profile Australians, we started to grow very rapidly. It all happened really quickly, in terms of national influence that was disproportionate to our size. That was surprising but it also was a good sign that there was something to this relentlessly positive approach to this question of the politics of fear and division.

We started to get some people to think about whether they would like their communities to be known as places where people could belong, contribute and thrive, or as a place of prejudice and turning people against their neighbour. And some obviously preferred to be known as generous, compassionate and welcoming. It was clearly resonating with lots of people, and people of influence as well.

We started up our annual ‘Walk Together’ events, which looked like protest marches but the vibe was positive and celebratory. People attending were not the usual kinds of activists, but it was family friendly and attended by people from heaps of multicultural communities.

When it comes to the influence Welcoming Australia has had, that is a hard thing to quantify. Part of our goal was to [cultivate] real personal and practical opportunities to offer welcome, but also to simply create relationships between people of different cultures which wouldn’t usually interact and hear each other’s stories.

There are countless stories across the past ten years of people sharing the simple act of eating food together or engaging in social life together. Whether it is unaccompanied young people arriving by boat who find community to support them throughout their education, or help them find jobs or homes, through to now the big structural things we do is the ‘Welcoming Cities’ agenda. We work with local councils to implement ‘Welcoming Cities’ standards, which are similar to Reconciliation Action Plans. Standards which councils [employ] to remove barriers to inclusion in education, employment, civil society and the like.

There are eight million Australians who live in council areas with Welcoming Cities agendas.

Ten years on from our start in 2011, we still have a whole lot of challenges in social issues but, at this moment, we are not being dominated by a prevailing political narrative of fear and division. Partly that is because the pandemic has taken attention away and people are thinking about other issues. But we definitely still see huge amounts of structural and interpersonal racism. I think there is still the latent opportunity for politicians and the media to use the underlying fear that is in Australians about those who are different, and whip that up again if it is politically expedient.

There’s a lot of evidence that we’re not there yet at really embodying a welcoming society at all levels. While it is good that we have seen councils get aboard Welcoming Cities – and people join our movement – we still have a long way to go.

For me, it’s the little wins along the way that keep me going. If your idea of success is utopia tomorrow, you will be perpetually depressed and give up. But we do see change happening. It’s more incremental than we would like – and the harm being done through racism and exclusion is still harrowing and heartbreaking – but along the way we see millions of Australians supporting the Biloela family stuck on Christmas Island.

The fact there is such massive community support for that family who arrived in Australia by boat, even that is a sign of hope and change. And if I take that down to a micro level in the communities I am involved with, seeing so many people pitch in to support those communities who were left out of JobSeeker and JobKeeper. We had volunteers delivering food hampers all across the city every day. We had people offering rooms in their houses. People donating money.

When you see that, you know that there is a different Australia not only possible but already on its way.

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